Repair the cycle: Design for Disassembly

November 28, 2010

Some good news! The pendulum of product design philosophy (and the design of the production process itself) is continuing to swing away from disposable objects with built-in obsolescence and is finally gaining momentum back toward products that can be reused, repaired and eventually more fully recycled.

What is Design for Disassembly?

One branch of the Sustainable Design and Industrial Redesign movement is Design for Disassembly (DfD). This design strategy is well summed up here:

This is the true genius of design for disassembly. It is a simple commandment to human creativity–you made it, you tell us how to get rid of it when its useful life is over or don’t make it in the first place. Of course, what [makes DfD] so effective is that environmental problems are placed in the hands of those people most likely to have a solution–the product designers themselves.

Jonathan Larson – The Philosophy of Design for Disassembly

This isn’t a new concept, of course. The industrial revolution and mass-production techniques created modular product designs with consistent parts that were easy to assemble, disassemble and repair. But during the race-to-the-bottom that is mass consumerism the focus on lowering up-front costs and pricing pressures lead to commodification and often products lose these post-use benefits (e.g. it can be faster and cheaper to join two pieces of a plastic case with glue or plastic welds instead of using fasteners and forming holes for them.)

The Challenge

This week Fast Company’s Co.Design made this challenge: Designers: Now’s the Time to Create Repairable Gadgets

Where do we start? Core77’s Afterlife: An Essential Guide To Design For Disassembly lays out a thoughtful and detailed roadmap, well worth reading.

Given environmental and cost constraints, our challenge is as much product de-creation as it is creation. And DfD strategies are applied throughout the entire design cycle; designers will need to educate the team, discover waste, set goals, create solutions, and then monitor results through production, release, use, and end-of-life.

Why Bother?

Economically and environmentally, the gains from efficient design processes and resource use/reuse are also pushing the pendulum. Germany is taking a leading role in DfD in the EU and Japan will likely lead Asia. I hope we here in the US will also step up and take a leading role.

So, let’s say thanks to and support those product designers who are keeping us end-of-product-life-cycle hackers, tinkerers, fixers and “repurposers” in mind at the start of the design cycle. The environment and the economy will say thanks too.

Further Reading

Here are a few recent examples of DfD I’ve run across lately:

  • iFixit.com has released a fantastic Self-Repair Manifesto (There’s one hanging in my workshop!)
  • Stanford University graduate students won Autodesk’s Inventor of the Month (October 2010) for developing a prototype of a recyclable laptop. The Bloom laptop can be disassembled in just two minutes, without tools and in just 10 steps. (Video interview with one of the project members.)
  • Disassembly is one of the stated goals of Herman Miller’s Design for the Environment initiative.
  • Xerox works to “to maximize the end-of-life potential of parts by emphasizing easy disassembly, durability, reuse, and recycling” of its printers. (Source: EPA report)
  • RedWing Shoes designs for reuse. Video of how they do it

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